By next week this time, it will all have come and gone. Again.
This coming Saturday, Nov. 21, is the Saturday before Thanksgiving. If you’re from around here and of a certain spirit, you know that means it’s Santa Train day.
No, it won’t be the same this year. But I’m thankful it will ... be. My heart tells me to be is itself a particular blessing, in its own right, this year.
Can the Santa Train spirit be present in the absence of the train? I say yes. It won’t be the same. It won’t spread as far into the countryside that the train’s rails run through from Kentucky to downtown Kingsport. But the train’s spirit will be running full steam ... where, when and how it can at this time in our lives.
And that’s at four Food City stores, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at each, this coming Saturday morning. Gifts from the Santa Train will be distributed by volunteers affiliated with train sponsors. They’ll give the gifts out at drive-through pickup points in store parking lots, to minimize physical contact. Santa’s elves at each site will wear masks while handing out gifts.
Through its social media accounts, Team Santa Train shared the following pointers:
• “Please stay in your vehicle the entire time and follow the instructions from our elves on where to go.”
• “Please wear a mask when talking to one of our elves, or if you visit the store after receiving gifts.”
• “Have fun and take photos! Although this year looks a little different, we still want to see your Santa Train experience.”
The four locations:
• Shelbiana Food City #475 — 2138 S. Mayo Trail, Pikeville, Kentucky 41501
• Clintwood Food City #892 — 410 Chase St., Clintwood, Virginia 24228
• St. Paul Food City #897 — 16410 Wise St., St. Paul, Virginia 24283
• Weber City Food City #820 — 3004 U.S. 23, Weber City, Virginia 24290
I’ve associated trains with Christmas since I was a toddler. Family photos from Christmas mornings, showing my siblings and me gathered in front of the Christmas tree with our gifts, more often than not show me with at least one train-related item. At one point I had a rather elaborate HO scale layout, made of plaster and featuring a mountain with a tunnel through it. I can remember my Dad painstakingly mounting the sections of track to the cork “rail bed.”
That heavy, room-crowding piece went away at some point. But I still have pieces and parts of my train sets. I’ve also accumulated way too many Hallmark train ornaments.
Maybe my fascination with trains is due simply to having grown up within sight of the very busy tracks passing through Kingsport. And noting, even as a boy, that the road we drove to visit my grandparents and other family “down home” in Lee County, Va., ran alongside railroad tracks. On the radio and on TV, there’d be Johnny Cash singing about that train.
On those trips “down home” I always stared at the Copper Creek viaduct (in my thoughts it was just “the big bridge,” until my brother taught me “trestle,” at which point it became “the big trestle”). A childhood dream came true when in sixth grade at Lincoln Elementary (my teacher: Vera Ruth Hawk) we went on a train excursion field trip — and I got to ride across the “big trestle.”
By then I’d of course visited Tweetsie Railroad several times with my family. I’ve always felt cheated I don’t have fond memories of the miniature train that used to operate on Duck Island. Years later I began my lasting love affairs with Dollywood’s authentic steam engine-pulled Dollywood Express (despite the flying cinders) and the Walt Disney Railroad that circles the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. And yes, I count the WDW monorail as a train.
I actually rode an Amtrak train to Orlando one Thanksgiving week a few years ago, for what has been my traditional birthday trip to Disney. It was an adventure. Just not the one I expected. I knew the worst before I boarded the train or even booked my ticket: passenger service between Raleigh, North Carolina, and the greater Orlando area is only available overnight. You don’t see the beauty, or anything else, passing you by.
It wasn’t my first experience with rail travel. In the mid to late 1980s, when I frequented Washington, D.C. (including summer jobs and a stint at The American University), I’d take Amtrak to New York for day trips. To be clear, I went to New York, had fun, and got back to D.C.’s Union Station all in the same day. That trip from Raleigh to Orlando? Fourteen hours.
For the past 20-plus years, the Santa Train has played a huge role in my holiday season. I’m happy its sponsors worked out a way to keep the train’s spirit of giving in place. I hope and pray Santa is back on the rails next year. I know and understand that many people are frustrated and disappointed about the Santa Train not running its route this year. Join me in appreciating the effort of those trying their best to do something to mark the tradition. Treasure your memories of the train over the years. Look forward to Santa’s triumphant return to the rear platform.
As for me, I’ll be recovering from oral surgery this week. On Saturday night, I think I’ll watch “The Polar Express.”
P.S. Before anyone gets concerned I said “holiday” instead of “Christmas,” up there about “season,” it’s like this: my birthday is Nov. 28. I basically have “my holiday season” (perhaps I should say holidayS season) from Halloween through Epiphany. And yes, I’m one of those people who can go from Halloween to Christmas overnight, with Thanksgiving and my birthday just seamlessly woven in as November ticks by. I started listening to Christmas music weeks ago. Don’t tell Mom I told y’all, but we’ve been eating off the Christmas dishes ALL YEAR.